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Standing: Who Can and Can’t File for Child Custody

Standing: Who Can and Can’t File for Child Custody

Standing: Who Can and Can’t File for Child Custody The ability to file a legitimate lawsuit for child custody is extremely limited. A person must have “standing” to file, which “relates . . . to the right of the party to have the court adjudicate a particular dispute.”[1] You must have some vested interest in something before you can even ask the court to rule on the controversy. Which Parents Can File? Parents automatically have standing to file for custody against each other because they both have equal constitutional right to the care and custody of their child. They have equal rights to their child unless there is a court order or they have a custody agreement. However, our statutes forbid anyone who is convicted of the following crimes, and which resulted in the conception of the minor child, from filing a child custody claim: first-degree forcible rape, second-degree forcible rape, statutory rape of a child by an adult or first-degree statutory rape. [2] Which Non-Parents Can File? When non-parents have custody, they are usually family-members because they are likely to see the child regularly, care for the child or have a strong bond with the child. It has little to do with which relative asks for custody. Instead, it has everything to do with the behavior of the parents. A non-parent only has standing to file for custody in the event that both parents are unfit or have taken actions that are inconsistent with their constitutional right to the care and custody of their child. This standard is the same as any non-parent. This even applies to grandparents who cannot sue for custody merely by virtue of their status as grandparents, although they may seek visitation in limited circumstances. Who Else Has Standing to File? Proving that the parents are unfit or that they have acted inconsistently with their rights is a huge hurdle. Constitutional rights protect parents who are merely adequate, or parents who don’t do a good job of parenting. But if the non-parent proves the parents are unfit or behaved inconsistently with their rights, our statutes set out a very broad list of potential custodians: “Any . . . other person, . . . claiming the right to custody . . . may institute a . . . proceeding for the custody of such child. . .” [2] But the non-parent cannot be a stranger to the child. He or she...

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The Trial: A Chaotic Experience

The Trial: A Chaotic Experience

The Trial: A Chaotic Experience No matter how prepared you and your attorney are, the days before a trial are frantic and stressful. A good case can be like a work of art. At first glance, it can look flawless but when you stand back and tilt your head, there are always a few more minor adjustments to be made before it is seemingly perfect. But trials are not perfect. Nor are they a color-by-number picture with a beginning and an end brightly mapped out. Instead, trials are organic. How are Trials Organic? Trials are organic because they take on lives of their own. After the first hour or two in the courtroom, a rhythm usually develops, which can offer a little more comfort. Trials are never what you (or your attorney) expect. Perhaps they will be better or worse, but they rarely stick to the script. Human nature means life is fluid . . . and messy. Because life doesn’t have a pause button, new events are constantly taking place right up to the day of the trial. The Human Factor No two trials are the same, nor are they made up by the same cast of characters or backdrop. Besides the fear of the unknown, the parties have the pressure of court staring them in the face. Stress and tempers can flare between the plaintiff and the defendant. Last-minute blow-ups between the parties and extended family members can impact the direction of the trial too. One or both of the attorneys might be completely unaware of some major problem that just unfolded on the day before court. The script is sometimes scrapped early in the trial because of the unexpected testimony of a witness or two. In that event, your attorney must improvise, playing it by ear. The Attorney Approaching trial dates can cause people to reconsider whether they want to attempt settlement. It is common for clients and their attorneys to be in touch with the opposing party all through the late evening on the eve of court. While the attorneys are tending to last minute details of trial preparation, if their clients want to negotiate and settle the case, they might draft the settlement documents at the same time with the hope that their time has been well-spent and that the parties will sign it the next morning. Time is a luxury most attorneys don’t have....

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What Do All Those Custody Labels Mean? Legal Custody

What Do All Those Custody Labels Mean? Legal Custody

What Do All Those Child Custody Labels Really Mean? (Part 1 of 2) This article focuses on legal custody. Parents will fight tooth and nail about what kind of custody each of them should have. They are extremely concerned about the term custody. There are many parenting labels including visitation, joint custody, sole custody, physical custody and legal custody. Our state statute doesn’t help much. In fact, it probably creates more confusion. NC Gen. Stat. §50-13.1(a) states: Unless a contrary intent is clear, the word “custody” shall be deemed to include custody or visitation or both.” However, our case law and the NC Child Support Guidelines do give us more details about those labels. I’ve tried to avoid legalese, but some of it is inevitable. Our Changing Values  Unlike some states, our state law doesn’t start by assuming that any particular type of custody will exist. But a few years ago, it came just shy of it when the state policy was written to promote “child-centered parenting . . . and encourage . . . court practices that reflect the active and ongoing participation of both parents in the child’s life and contact with both parents when such is in the child’s best interest…” NC Gen. Stat. §50-13.01. This was significant because it wasn’t too many years ago that courts almost automatically gave moms custody of young children. The now debunked law of traditional custody, called the Tender Years Doctrine, assumed young children of tender years should be with their mothers if at all possible. Now, if either parent requests joint custody, the court is legally obligated to consider it. NC Gen. Stat. §50-13.2(a). Legal Custody (Parenting Decisions) Legal custody is decision-making custody, the right to make significant long-term decisions that impact a child’s life and welfare, such as a child’s education, health, medical care, discipline, and religious training, to name a few. Contrast that with physical custody, the day-to-day decision-making such as what bed-time is best or how long a child may spend on social media on a school night. There are three types of legal custody. Joint Legal Custody The trend these days is to award joint legal custody to parents, meaning that both parents equally share the decision-making. Ironically, when parents share joint custody, neither parent can veto the other, so neither parent really has any more rights to make a decision than the other. But, the system of checks and balances provides some incentive for decent behavior. If one parent acts badly or makes poor decisions,...

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Contempt of Court in North Carolina

Contempt of Court in North Carolina

Contempt of Court in North Carolina When someone violates a court order, the other person can file a motion asking the court to hold him or her in contempt. In family law, judges enter orders for child custody and support, alimony and marital property division, among others. Our statutes define the way a judge can require people to obey court orders, up to and including incarceration. There are two kinds of contempt, civil or criminal. Civil Contempt After the judge determines the order is valid and still in effect, a judge must be certain the “purpose of the order may still be served by compliance with the order.” NC Gen. Stat. §5-21(a). To enforce an order by civil contempt, someone must willfully fail to comply with the order. He or she must have the ability to comply or take reasonable measures that would enable the person to comply. For instance, if you are required to pay child support by court order but you are in a bad vehicle accident and unable to work some period of time because you were in the hospital for a month, you might be able to prove you were unable to comply with the order. That doesn’t mean the judge will cancel or reduce the child support obligation. It just means that the order is not being enforced by holding you in contempt and incarcerating you. There are other ways people can enforce orders. Incarceration For Civil Contempt The purpose of civil contempt is not to punish someone as is the case with criminal contempt. Instead, the purpose of incarceration is to force the person to comply with the order. If a parent owes back child support, he or she is taken into the custody of the sheriff until the payments are made. The judge must order certain release conditions called “purge conditions” because doing those things will allow the person to purge or rid himself or herself of contempt. It is said that in civil contempt, the person incarcerated holds the keys to the jail because all he or she has to do is comply with the order. The person refusing to comply with an order of the court may be initially incarcerated up to 90 days. If there is no compliance, the judge will have another hearing at the end of the 90 days. The maximum time of incarceration for civil contempt...

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What Do Judges Consider in Alimony Cases?

What Do Judges Consider in Alimony Cases?

What Do Judges Consider in Alimony Cases? By Amy A. Edwards The factors guide judges in reminding them of the most important things. Either spouse may seek alimony if he or she earns less than the other in North Carolina, although there’s no specific dollar amount that determines by how much less. While we have guidelines in child support cases that compute an amount based on incomes and certain child-related expenses, we don’t have anything of that nature for alimony. Each party prepares a budget as a trial exhibit, which includes income and living expenses. If the judge awards it, the amount of alimony and how long it will be paid is discretionary. Alimony Factors: Incomes/Benefits NC judges must consider a list of factors in alimony cases. The first factor to consider is how much income each spouse has, and sometimes what a spouse has the capacity to earn. Also considered is unearned income, which is not shown on a W-2 statement, such as dividends, rents, retirement payments, disability, social security payments and employment benefits such as medical insurance (and/or dental and vision insurance), retirement benefits, and marital property and debts. Alimony Factors: Each Person’s Situation The court considers each spouse’s individual circumstance, education, age, physical and mental abilities, and emotional conditions. For example, a 25-year-old spouse and a 60-year-old spouse will be treated differently based on medical conditions and the ability to work. Their needs and expectations, such as the anticipated date of retirement or going back to school, also vary. Marital misconduct of either spouse may also be considered. Alimony Factors: History of the Marriage The court also looks at the standard of living that the parties established during the marriage. How long the parties were married and the contribution by one spouse to the education, training, or increased earning power of the other spouse are other factors. One party might have kept the home-fires burning for the last ten years, caring for the children while the other devoted his or her energy to obtaining a degree or advance in a profession, improving the family income. In fact, the statute also requires the judge to consider the “extent to which the earning power, expenses, or financial obligations of a spouse will be affected by reason of serving as the custodian of a minor child.” Alimony Factors: Miscellaneous The court looks at family obligations, such as paying child...

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Why Are They Doing This? Motives in Family Law Disputes

Why Are They Doing This? Motives in Family Law Disputes

Why Are They Doing This? Motives in Family Law Disputes When they are trying to settle their cases, clients ask why the other parent or spouse is doing certain things. As attorneys, we can’t know exactly what anyone is thinking or tell you the reasons why people do things. But based on our experience, we see some routine reasons people do things when they are dealing with family issues such as a divorce or child custody matter. Unfortunately for many families, the legal system is an adversarial one. When a spouse or parent gets along fairly well with the other, each might intend to reach an agreement without the time and expense of court. They may already have attorneys and the negotiations may be underway but when one decides to take action against the other (often by filing a lawsuit), it can be shocking and very offensive. People have many rights they can exercise, even doing so isn’t necessarily useful or “fair.” It goes against common sense, but the law doesn’t always require reasons for doing things. It is a system, played out on under the fluorescent lights of the courtroom.  The most common time for wondering why the other side does something is when one party decides to file a lawsuit out of the blue. The only way to force someone to do something is to take it to court. Instead of letters going back and forth, a lawsuit means there is immediately a list of deadlines and a trial date. It can mean someone calls a bluff. The other person must then decide if he or she really wants to litigate their case or not.  Another common question is why the other side is lying about something in court documents. First, lying is frequently open to interpretation. Second, people do genuinely misunderstand and/or miscommunicate about their dispute, which probably contributed to their separation or dispute in the first place. By the time you add two attorneys with second-hand information arguing about something, you have four interpretations of the same event or fact. Others are in denial about what really happened. Third, people do lie.  The relationship between the attorney and client offers another piece to the puzzle of figuring out why people do things that don’t seem to be practical when dealing with a dispute. Like any relationship, there are numerous types of the attorney-client relationship. Some clients actively manage...

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